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Vanek makes you believe he's too good to be true

by Larry Wigge /

"I have always put high expectations on myself, no matter how many dollars I was getting to produce."
-- Thomas Vanek

After spending a few moments with Thomas Vanek, you become convinced there's no way you can come up with a doubting Thomas story.

Even though this past summer was immeasurably more stable than the summer of 2007, when he signed a 7-year, $50 million free-agent offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers that was matched by his Buffalo Sabres, Vanek insists he has never weighed down by the burden of expectations.

"It's never been about the money, from the time I left Austria when I was 14 to come to North America to see if I could make a career for myself in hockey," said Vanek, now 24. "I can honestly look you straight in the eyes and say that I'm the same player whether I'm making $600,000 or $10 million."

Vanek is obviously a grounded individual who thrives on pressure.

On the ice, the lanky, 6-foot-2, 210-pound wing shows you bursts of speed, but mostly plays under control, almost like he disappears for a moment and then -- boom! -- he is in the right place at the right time for a great goal-scoring opportunity.

"He's got the quickest hands I've seen on a kid that age in a long time," said St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay McKee, who played in Buffalo when Vanek was breaking into the NHL. "He's electric when he gets the puck in a scoring position."

When Vanek left Austria, he left behind family and friends. But opportunity loomed in North America; first at the University of Minnesota, where he was part of an NCAA championship team as a freshman.

Vanek was selected No. 5 in the 2002 NHL Draft. He showed immediate scoring prowess in the NHL, scoring 25 times as a rookie and netting another 43 the next season.

While Vanek slipped to 36 goals last season, he has started this season with 7 goals in his first 5 games, including 2 shorthanded goals. That's a pretty good indication he is ready to face the heat and challenge the 50-goal plateau.

That just goes to show you how far Vanek has come from his rookie season, when he had 25 goals, but his minus-11 rating made him a healthy scratch for several playoff games.


"Vanek is putting himself in the right position to score..."


"As a result I had good tickets to this game..."


"Thomas Vanek is playing like a man possessed...."

In 2006-07, when he had the 43 goals and 84 points, his plus-47 rating was one of the best in the NHL. Then came 36 goals, and a big drop to minus-5, partly because his opponents began to check him more closely after the departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.

"I told him if he worked hard and kept his legs moving, he would see penalty-killing time," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "My goal is to make him the best two-way player in hockey, and he has the potential to do that. All he has to do is work hard ..."

Ruff paused for a second, smiled and then continued his thought, saying, "I guess what I'm saying is that I need Thomas to play like he's a $900,000 player, because it seemed to be pretty good a couple of years ago."

"That's funny ... because it's almost the same as my dad told me the last couple of offseasons, too," Vanek added.

Everyone, except Vanek, always seems to come back to the surprise free-agent offer sheet, don't they?

"I have the same goals, the same purpose in life. I still look at everything the same way," he said. "Pressure isn't a burden unless you let it be one. I look at pressure like adrenaline as being a heartbeat that pushes you to play better."

If you get the feeling this kid is too good to be true, well, I think he is the real deal. And so must the Oilers, who submitted the big-time offer sheet for a restricted free agent who had yet to put together a series of unforgettable seasons.

The Sabres matched that offer in a heartbeat.

"He's a goal scorer. More than that, he scores big goals," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "So many of his goals have come in crucial situations -- and that's something every team needs."

"With a player like that, you can win a championship," Oilers President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe said. "You can get very excited. This wasn't a publicity stunt by any stretch. It was a strong, good shot to get a player. We thought it might work based on the size of the offer."

Vanek has been a budding star almost since his plane from Austria landed in North America. He went on to play three seasons at Sioux Falls, Iowa, of the United States Hockey League, where he had 15, 19 and 46 goals. That led him to Minnesota, where he had 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games as a freshman in 2002-03 and 26 goals and 25 assists in 38 games the following season.

In April 2003, during the Frozen Four at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, Vanek led the Golden Gophers to the NCAA title as a freshman, scoring the game-winning goals in both the semifinal and championship games. He was named the NCAA tournament MVP. In the process, he became the first freshman to lead the Gophers in scoring since 1970 and was named the WCHA Rookie of the Year.

I always like to ask players what obstacle they might have had to overcome to achieve their success. For Vanek, it was not being doubted because he was too small, too slow, too this or too that.

"All I remember is here I was in a foreign place to me," Vanek said. "I was homesick. I had second thoughts about my move. I remember thinking, 'Boy do I wish I could go home and talk to my buddies.' But I had the hopes of everyone in Austria on me. I might not have been able to communicate too well off the ice, but I knew the right words and moves to compete on the ice.

"I have always put high expectations on myself, no matter how many dollars I was getting to produce.

"My dad (Zdenek) is a hockey coach back home, so he had me on skates and with a stick in my hands when I was about this high," he said, pointing downward about 3 feet off the ground in the Sabres' dressing room. "He taught me everything I know. He gave me the genes to be an athlete. My mom (Jarmila) is a hotel manager. I saw how hard she worked, too. That makes an impression on you, if you know what I mean? It makes you want to fulfill your life's dream."
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